CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- At 8-6, the Broncos no longer control their playoff destiny. However, they can control how they react to this indignity. Will they turn inward, channeling pride for motivation? Or will they turn on themselves, which surfaced Sunday after the Broncos slumped to the New England Patriots 16-3 in bitter cold Sports Authority Field at Mile High?
The defense's frustration, bubbling for two years, became palpable in the locker room. The Patriots clinched their eighth straight division title as the Broncos lost for the fourth time in six games, and third time in their last four. The offense has scored 53 points in the latter stretch.
As reporters waited for players to talk, multiple defenders expressed their concerns, saying they should be paid by the play, a less-than-subtle jab at their latest workload (75 plays to the offense's 62 snaps). Defenders, in some cases, just stated the facts.
"When you kill yourself with two early turnovers, and you're not putting points up, it's hard to win games. Point-blank, period," safety T.J. Ward said. "That's what we've doing the last few weeks, and you see we've got two losses."
Added cornerback Chris Harris Jr., "That's what makes you sick. Is that we come out and play stout and lose."
The emotion is a manifestation of the record. Broncos coach Gary Kubiak dismissed reports of friction.
"I would never let something be divisive ... that (locker-room dispute between cornerback Aqib Talib and lineman Russell Okung) doesn't bother me," Kubiak said. "I've been in NFL locker rooms 400-plus times. That was nothing."
Kubiak admitted the defense had every right to be angry. The unit played well enough to win and the offense couldn't translate yards into points because of issues on third down and in the red zone. Denver managed five first downs in the second half.
"It's starts with me. I have to do a better job," Kubiak said. "There are no excuses."
The Broncos struggled offensively last year, but it was camouflaged by a fifth straight division title and the presence of Peyton Manning. Teammates held the five-time NFL MVP in reverence, and believed he would find a way to win even when as statistics nosedived. There are no veteran leaders on offense this year who command that type of respect.
Trevor Siemian, who has earned raves for his toughness, is a first-year starter. Demaryius Thomas is a captain, but a man of few words. Okung has spoken his mind before and after games, but it didn't go over well with multiple members of the secondary when Okung attempted to address the team after Sunday's loss. Given the mood, it was surprising Kubiak opened the floor for players to speak.
"It's players who are very competitive who really want what's best for this team," Okung said. "It's not a big issue. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: to win games. We've spoken (he and Talib). We made amends, had a discussion and it's pretty much over."
The tension remained as the media waited for interviews on Sunday night. Some players who typically talk, politely declined. Others, like outside linebacker Von Miller, insisted they would not let the team fracture.
"Adversity always reveals character," said Miller, who is prepared to play peacemaker if necessary. "We've got great character guys, high-character guys in the locker room and the front office. We are in a tough spot, but we've just got to keep playing."
Talib has been a visible critic of missteps. It began when he pushed receiver Jordan Norwood after he muffed a punt against Kansas City. Talib talked Sunday of fostering unity over the final two games, which might not matter if Miami wins on Christmas Eve.
"It's up to the leaders on this team. The leaders on the team have got to keep the morale good in the locker room. Most of the people follow what we do, so I'll make sure we're straight," Talib said. "The older guys on offense, the older guys on defense, they see us vibing and know we're all good. The (young guys) are pretty much going to do what we do."
Jeff Heuerman enjoyed a career performance with two catches for 40 yards on Sunday. His role is likely to increase against the Chiefs with tight ends Virgil Green and A.J. Derby in the concussion protocol. Green left the game with a concussion. Derby showed signs of a concussion after the game. ... Defensive end Derek Wolfe told Denver7 after the game he anticipates playing against Kansas City after suffering two stingers in his neck/shoulder area. His condition improved on Monday. ... Kubiak again said it was his decision to play Jordan Norwood. He was disappointed in his performance, but felt he earned the right to be active because of his role in the offense. Regardless, the Broncos are considering options on punt return including Emmanuel Sanders and Kalif Raymond. ... Billy Turner played 14 snaps at right guard, rotating in for Michael Schofield. This was planned before the game and could continue. ... Sanders voiced his displeasure on Twitter with critics who felt Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler neutralized him. Sanders finished with three catches for 48 yards. "If you think Butler shut me down. .. child please! My 2 year old son Princeton can play Cover 2. Go watch the tape. He know better."